Kindness, bravery of strangers saved this soldier

Cpl. William Rogers was saved 70 years ago this holiday season.
Cpl. William Rogers was saved 70 years ago this holiday season.

As we wind through the celebration of Christmas, sometimes we never get the chance to remember the best of what this holiday means. This season is defined by the kindness we show to our families, friends, the less fortunate and even strangers.

I cannot help but think that without the kindness of strangers, I would not even be here today.

You see, 70 years ago my father, Cpl. William R. Rogers, was on a recon patrol by himself on Dec. 23, 1944, south of the small village of Weywertz, Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge was a week old and the armies had been attacking and counter-attacking for days.

The U.S. First Division, in which my father served, was barely holding on to what was called the northern shoulder. This was a defensive line that played a key role in keeping the German armor from turning north toward its main objective, the Belgian city of Liege. This was the largest and deadliest battle of World War II.

Being born and raised in the mountains of Blue Diamond in Eastern Kentucky, my father was a lead scout for L Company of the 18th Regiment of the 1st Division. This was not an easy task, since you basically had to sneak behind enemy lines, map the enemy positions and then get back to report them.

A scout had to be able to hike long distances, read maps accurately and stay concealed while doing it; this was a very dangerous job to have. Having hunted since a child and worked in the coal mines, dad was a natural and volunteered for it. He lied about his age and joined the Army at 17.

The winter of 1944 was one of the worst on record for Western Europe; the night of Dec. 23 was snowy with a temperature below zero. My father became so cold he didn't think he could hike the three miles back to the American lines. He tried to bed down in the forest, but he just got colder, so he started hiking back.

Walking along and starting to figure he was just going to freeze to death, he came upon a small farmhouse with smoke coming out of the chimney. He snuck down and looked in the window to see two old Belgian women inside. When he knocked on the door they only asked him one question, "American?" After he nodded yes they let him in.

The bravery of these two women cannot be understated, since they were on the front lines and the Germans were killing civilians caught being helpful to Americans. Had the Germans caught my father there, they would have doubtless killed all three of them.

After warming by the fire, they gave him some biscuits and soup, and in return he gave them a bar of chocolate. My father always said that simple meal was one of the best-tasting ones he ever had. He then went to sleep lying down across the doorway of the small farmhouse, standard practice while out alone since anyone coming in the house will wake you.

When he woke up before dawn the next morning, the women had put some blankets on him during the night. After a cup of hot tea, he went over the map with them as best as the language barrier would allow and they actually helped him locate some of the Germans in the area.

Then he snuck out before daylight and got back to his lines, to the amazement of his platoon and with valuable information to boot.

My father would go on to win two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, two Unit Citations and other medals. He was nominated for the Silver Star for being the first American GI scout into Bonn, Germany, having to call in artillery on top of himself to survive.

Of all his nights in World War II, that freezing night always stood out to him. Because, without the kindness and bravery of two Belgian farm women, giving shelter and food to a strange soldier, dad would likely not have seen Christmas, 1944.

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers; and always be kind to a stranger when you have the chance. That kindness may have happened 70 years ago, but it is just as relevant now in these troubled times as it was back then.

Bruce Rogers is a Lexington geologist.